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Jewish war

(66-73 CE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Romans plundering the holy candlestick of the Jews from Jerusalem
Romans plundering the holy candlestick of the Jews from Jerusalem | Photo: Radu Oltean

Jewish War, also known as the Judea uprising, broke out in 66 CE and was an attempt at the independence of the Jews from the power of the Roman Empire.

Background of events

Judea, still in the reign of Herod the Great.
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The Jews have long tried to free themselves from the yoke of Rome. Initial successes always raised the morale of the insurgents, but when the emperor paid more attention to the uprising, he sent an army that was always able to defeat the enemy.

Judea became a Roman province after the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE. He was a pro-Roman ruler who considered Italy his second home. However, as an admirer of Roman customs, he was not well-regarded among the people, and his death caused a huge increase in protests and uprisings against the Roman occupiers. The Emperor of the time Octavian Augustus responded immediately by sending an army to Judea headed by the legate Syria Varus. He brutally and quickly suppressed the uprising so that a similar incident would not happen in the future. Emperor Augustus recognized Judea as a Roman province, which was to calm the temper of the rebels. However, the Jews did not think to give their country over to occupation.

The defeat of the previous rebellion only intensified the protests, which from 4 CE intensified from year to year. The riots were only temporary, but they were to turn into an open anti-Roman rebellion in the future.


In 66 CE, a Jewish uprising against Rome broke out in Caesarea in Judea and quickly spread to all of Judea. The outbreak of the uprising was provoked by the Greeks who sacrificed birds in front of the entrance to the local synagogue. In response, one of the Jewish temples ceased praying and sacrificing in honour of the Roman emperor. Moreover, dissatisfaction with taxes was growing. These events sparked a wave of hatred among the Jews who began attacking random Roman citizens and looking for “traitors” in Jerusalem.

The unrest was decided by the prosecutor Gesjus Florus. At his command, Roman soldiers stormed the rebellious temple and seized seventeen talents from the tabernacle treasury, claiming that the money belonged to the emperor. This situation enraged the Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem once again. Florus began to be ridiculed, claiming that he was poor and needed a livelihood. Even a “collection” was inaugurated – a basket was handed over to each other, into which money was thrown. On this information, Florus ordered his soldiers to break into the city and arrest the opposition leaders, who were beaten and crucified. Interestingly, many of the people had Roman citizenship.

In response, the Jews, led by a nationalist faction, attacked and captured the Roman garrison in the city. The rebellion in Judea was attempted by King Chalcis, Herod II Agrippa, who was subordinate to Rome:

However, as to the desire of recovering your liberty, it is unseasonable to indulge it so late; whereas you ought to have laboured earnestly in old time that you might never have lost it; for the first experience of slavery was hard to be endured, and the struggle that you might never have been subject to it would have been just; but that slave who hath been once brought into subjection, and then runs away, is rather a refractory slave, than a lover of liberty.

Josephus Flavius ​​, Jewish War, II.16.4

Eventually, however, Herod II and his sister Berenice fled to Galilee.

The Jews, after taking over the city, began the process of removing Roman symbols from public spaces and removing Roman officials. Meanwhile, the radical Jewish party – the Sicarius – captured the Roman garrison in Masada by surprise and captured a well-fortified stronghold.

The outbreak of the anti-Roman uprising, however, was not entirely consistent. There were strong divisions among the Jews between those who wanted liberation and those who wanted to cooperate with the Romans.

Roman denarius depicting Titus.
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The Legate of Syria Gaius Cestius Gallus rushed together with the army of the XII Fulminata legion, an additional two thousand soldiers from the 3rd Gallica, IIII Scythica and VI Ferrata, six cohorts and four cavalry squads. His army was also accompanied by contingents of auxiliary troops provided by allied kings. The army, however, was ill-equipped, undisciplined, and poorly commanded. The legate immediately went to the walls of Jerusalem and began the siege. However, he did not expect such strong resistance from the Jewish insurgents who inflicted several severe defeats on him. He himself could not make his way through the first line of fortifications, and such a large city (Jerusalem was said to have had about 1,000,000 inhabitants) was surely well-stocked. There was enough food for a very long siege, and the walls were enormous. So Gallus decided to break the siege and retreat to Syria. However, the Jews followed the legate, destroying his army from the rear and trapping him; especially in the Beth Horon valley. As a result, he lost 5,800 legionaries in an unsuccessful reaction to the uprising. The legion XII Fulminata, commanded by Caesenius Gallus, lost its legionary marks, including the eagle. During the retreat, the commander of the 6th Ferrata legion, Tyrranius Priskus, also fell. Then there was the Battle of Gaboa, in which the Romans lost 525 legionaries, with only 22 casualties among the insurgents.

Battle of the 12th Fulminata Legion with Jewish insurgents in the Beth Horon Valley.
Josephus Flavius ​​, a Jewish historian from a priestly family. After his release from captivity, he devoted himself entirely to literary work, writing down the history of the uprising.
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Nero, concerned about his defeats, decided to send someone well-versed in command, someone who had already become famous in combat as a commander. He chose to choose Vespasian, the army commander who, along with the emperor, Claudius won Britain. The 57-year-old Vespasian was the only one who was not suspected by the emperor as a rival to the throne, which is why Nero decided to send him. In 67 CE, Vespasian invaded Galilee, taking more Jewish cities by storm. Vespasian, after landing with an army in Caesarea, began to block Jerusalem. In 67 CE he took Perea, captured Gadara and left legio X Fretensis there. In spring he took the towns on the coastal plain, and in Emmaus he left legio V Macedonica. The remaining troops moved north and captured Jericho. There the X legion was moved. Roman troops were supported by allied forces, which were constituted of contingents sent by Agrippa Soemos of Emesa and Antiochus IV of Commagene.

As the Jews did not manage to form a regular army, the fighting was limited to sieges. On June 67 CE near the city of Jotapata (defended 47 days), the last two defenders of the city capitulated, among whom was Flavius ​​Joseph, the future historian who most profoundly described the uprising, praising the action and command of Vespasian and later his son Titus. As Joseph foretold Vespasian the imperial crown and power, he kept him in captivity, allowing for a description of the uprising. In the future, the Jewish historian will be liberated and will be treated well by the emperors. Jotapada was captured by the Romans and razed to the ground. 40,000 Jews died there.

In 68 CE, Vespasian’s army split to conquer certain regions and cities in Galilee, but the next year his son Titus took command, who proved to be an even better commander than his father. Vespasian focused now on the fight for the throne, as there were many contenders for imperial power after Nero’s death. Fortunately, Vespasian seized power and was able to calmly watch his son’s actions in Judea.

Relief from the Arch of Titus: procession from trophies won in Jerusalem, incl. menorah from the destroyed temple of Solomon. The menorah, a golden, seven-branched candlestick, was sacred in Judaism. Romans looted it and kept it in Rome until 455 CE when the artefact was seized by the Vandals. Belisarius transported the candlestick to Constantinople, after the conquest of Carthage; however, the menorah was lost over time.
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The Romans continued to pacify the Galilee uprising. The 5th Tribune Legion of Cerealis surrounded the rebels in Samaria, on Mount Gerazim, where a total of 11,000 Jews were killed. The X Legion took over Tiberias, Tarychei and Joppe. In addition to those killed, 10,000 Jews were taken prisoner. The most brilliant episode of the entire war was the defence of the Jewish fortress of Gamali. 9,000 Jews and a crowd of civilians defended it there. The fortress was defended for four weeks. At the time of its fall, 5,000 Jews committed suicide. The remaining 4,000 were murdered by the Romans. Only two women survived the pogrom.

After the numerous defeats of the insurgents with the regular Roman army, the aristocratic order in Jerusalem collapsed as the Idumeans entered Jerusalem and took power in Judea in March 68 CE. He was a supporter of the fanatical Zelotes. 10,000 Jews died in the fighting in the city. Jerusalem was torn apart by an internal civil war between four factions: Jerusalem Zealots led by Eleazar Ben-Simon (2,400), The Galilean Zealots under John of Gishali (6,000 people), Sicarians led by Simon Bar Gior (10,000 men) and Idumeans led by Jakub Bar-Sos and Simon Bar-Katl (5,000 men)

Illustration showing Jerusalem just before the outbreak the first war against the Romans, in the 1st century CE
Author: Rocío Espín Piñar

Siege of Jerusalem

Jerusalem with three walls, the inner wall of which was the strongest and most durable, seemed impregnable. The Roman army was commanded by Titus, with Tiberius Julius Alexander as his deputy. The siege was attended by three legions (V Macedonica, XII Fulminata, XV Apollinaris) on the west side and the fourth (X Fretensis) on the Mount of Olives in the east. Apart from 4 Legions, Titus also had at his disposal 2 legions from Alexandria: legio III Cyreneica and XXII Deiotarian. It is also worth presenting the command of these units. The commander of the legio XV Apollinaris was Titus Frugi, a consul from 80 CE (during the reign of Emperor Titus). The commander of the legio V Macedonica was Cerealius Sextus Vettulenus (Vetilianus); the commander of legio X Fretensis was Larcius Lepidus (during the reign of Emperor Vespasian), then Marcus Ulpius Traianus (during the reign of his son, Titus). Marcus Traianus captured the city of Joppy (the present city of Jaffa). He was a consul from CE 70, then the governor of Syria. Emperor Trajan’s father. We do not know the commander of XII Fulminata. Later (75 CE) it could have been Lucius Julius Maximus. The Alexandrian Legions – III Cyreneica and XXII Deiotarian were commanded by Heterius Fronton, a friend of Titus. Little-known figure. Some codes mention his name – Heternios or Liternios. It is also worth mentioning Marcus Antony Julianus, who was the prosecutor of Judea, or, and a financial officer in the service of Titus. On August 28, 70 CE, when Roman legionaries stormed the temple circuit in Jerusalem, Titus called a conference of senior commanders in which the aforementioned Antony Julianus participated. It was to be decided whether the Jerusalem Temple was to be destroyed. Later, Antony Julianus wrote a work in which he blamed the Jews themselves for their fate. It was on his memoirs that Tacitus relied on when describing Titus’ counsel in the now-lost books of “Dziejów”.

Titus put pressure on the food and water supplies by allowing pilgrims to enter the city to celebrate the Passover and then refusing them to go out. After Jewish forays that killed several Roman soldiers, Titus sent Josephus Flavius, a former Jewish commander loyal to Rome, to negotiate with the defenders. It ended up being wounded by the negotiator’s arrow by the Jews, and another raid by the insurgents. Titus was almost captured in this sudden attack but managed to escape.

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem, John Roberts

In mid-May, Titus prepared to destroy the newly constructed Third Wall with a battering ram, breaching it. The same was done with Second Wall. After conquering the first two walls, Titus turned his attention to Antonia’s Fortress north of the Temple Mount. The Romans were then drawn into street fights with the Zelotes, which forced them to withdraw.

Catapult, Edward Poynter. Siege machines such as would be used by the Roman army when attacking.

After several unsuccessful attempts to breach the walls of the Antonia fortress, the Romans launched a covert attack, killing sleeping Zealot guards and finally capturing the fortress. It was the second-highest area in the city, after the Temple Mount, that allowed the Temple itself to be attacked. In the course of this attack, one of the Roman soldiers threw a flaming head inside the Sanctuary through the golden gates, which started a fire in the Temple. Destroying the Temple was not one of Titus’ goals. Most likely, Titus intended to take it over and turn it into a temple dedicated to the emperor and the Roman gods. But the flames spread quickly and were soon unstoppable. The temple was destroyed in Tisha B’Av, at the end of August, the holiday commemorating the anniversary of the destruction of the First and Second Jerusalem Temples. The flames soon spread to nearby residential areas of the city, killing many civilians.

Flavius ​​Josephus described the conquest of Jerusalem as follows:

Now as soon as the army had no more people to slay, or to plunder, because there remained none to be the objects of their fury: (for they would not have spared any, had there remained any other work to be done:) Cæsar gave orders that they should now demolish the intire city, and temple: but should leave as many of the towers standing as were of the greatest eminency, that is, Phasaelus, and Hippicus, and Mariamne: and so much of the wall as inclosed the city on the west side. This wall was spared, in order to afford a camp for such as were to lie in garrison: as were the towers also spared in order to demonstrate to posterity what kind of city it was, and how well fortified, which the Roman valour had subdued. But for all the rest of the wall, it was so thoroughly laid even with the ground, by those that dug it up to the foundation, that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it had ever been inhabited. This was the end which Jerusalem came to, by the madness of those that were for innovations. A city otherwise of great magnificence, and of mighty fame among all mankind.

Josephus Flavius ​​, Jewish War, VII.1.1

Joseph maintained that 1,100,000 people were killed during the siege, the majority of whom were Jews. 97,000 Jews were captured and enslaved, including Simon bar Gior and Jan of Gischala. Many have fled to areas around the Mediterranean Sea. According to Philostratos, Titus reportedly refused to accept the wreath of victory as “there is no merit in the victory of people abandoned by their own God.”

Thus did the miseries of Jerusalem grow worse and worse every day; and the seditious were still more irritated by the calamities they were under, even while the famine preyed upon themselves; after it had preyed upon the people. And indeed the multitude of carcasses that lay in heaps one upon another was an horrible sight; and produced a pestilential stench; which was an hindrance to those that would make sallies out of the city, and fight the enemy. But as those were to go in battle array, who had been already used to ten thousand murders, and must tread upon those dead bodies as they marched along, so were not they terrified, nor did they pity men as they marched over them. Nor did they deem this affront offered to the deceased to be any ill omen to themselves. But as they had their right hands already polluted with the murders of their own country men, and in that condition ran out to fight with foreigners, they seem to me to have cast a reproach upon God himself; as if he were too slow in punishing them. For the war was not now gone on with, as if they had any hope of victory: for they gloried after a brutish manner in that despair of deliverance they were already in. And now the Romans, although they were greatly distressed in getting together their materials, raised their banks in one and twenty days; after they had cut down all the trees that were in the country that adjoined to the city: and that for ninety furlongs round about; as I have already related. And truly the very view itself of the country was a melancholy thing. For those places which were before adorned with trees, and pleasant gardens, were now become a desolate country every way; and its trees were all cut down. Nor could any foreigner that had formerly seen Judea, and the most beautiful suburbs of the city, and now saw it, as a desert; but lament and mourn sadly at so great a change. For the war had laid all the signs of beauty quite waste. Nor if any one that had known the place before, had come on a sudden to it now, would he have known it again: but though he were at the city it self, yet would he have enquired for it notwithstanding.

Josephus Flavius ​​, Jewish War, VI.1.1

From September 11, 70 to April 1, 73, the Jewish fortresses Herodion (surrendered without a fight) and Machaeus (surrendered after a siege of several days) fell. At Machaeus, the Romans murdered 1,700 men and sold all the women and children into slavery. They surrounded and killed those who escaped from the Zelotes’ pogrom by the Jordan.

Model of the Temple of Jerusalem under Titus.
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In the spring of 73 CE, the Romans were under siege and captured the fortress of Masada. Masada was conquered by legio X Fretensis, plus 5 auxiliary cohorts. The siege was commanded by Lucius Flavius ​​Silwa Nonius Bassus. He was governor of Judea from 73/74 to 81 CE The fall of the Jewish fortress of Masada was described by historians:

Eleazar introduced the people that night to first their wives and children and then kill themselves. The next day, the Romans found 967 bodies, except two women and five children, hidden in the caves.

Nachman Ben-Yehuda, The Masada Myth

The Romans finally pacified the uprising after heavy fights.


The city was destroyed and the Temple of Jerusalem burned down. According to the records of Flavius, 1,100,000 Jews died in Jerusalem. Over 97,000 Jews were taken prisoner, of which 17,000 died of starvation. While the number of prisoners of war is probable, the number of those killed has been exaggerated. The princes and representatives of prominent Judean families were sent back to Rome. The elders were sent to Egyptian mines, and the strongest youth were distributed throughout the Roman provinces to perform in circuses fighting wild animals. Up to 2,000 people were killed during one circus performance. Children and women were sold. Emperor Vespasian declared Judea his private property and ordered Roman officials to sell it in small plots of land.

Demolition of the temple in Jerusalem, Francesco Hayez

The Romans also seized golden vessels from the Temple of Jerusalem, which were kept in the Temple of Peace (Templum Pacis). It was located at the Forum Pacis in Rome, southeast of the Forum Romanum, and was considered to be an unusually large and magnificent structure. It was dedicated in the 6th year of the reign of Vespasian (75 CE) according to Cassius Dio. It burned down in a great fire in 191 CE shortly before her death Commodus. It is not known whether the golden vessels from the Temple of Jerusalem stored in it survived.

It was a heavy uprising that resulted in the death of many legionaries. It was also the last major Jewish uprising during the reign of Rome.

  • Stephen Dando-Collins, Conquering Jerusalem
  • Josephus Flavius, Jewish War
  • Grant Michael, Dzieje dawnego Izraela, Warszawa 1991
  • Krawczuk Aleksander, Poczet cesarzy rzymskich, Warszawa 2004
  • Krawczuk Aleksander, Rzym i Jerozolima

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